BizWest’s CEO Roundtable recap: Maximize crop per drop

Photo credit Wikimedia.

From BizWest.com (Ken Amundson):

Northern Colorado ag professionals are searching for strategies to return to profitability in the face of headwinds that include water shortages, over-regulation, labor shortages and increasing costs.

In fact, the difficulty in consistently producing a profit makes selling available water shares increasingly attractive, which makes the ag industry precarious for future generations.

Ag professionals gathered Tuesday morning at Elevations Credit Union in Windsor to participate in BizWest’s CEO Roundtable. The event is sponsored by Elevations, HUB International and EKS&H…

Markham said that about 30 percent of the water originally brought into the region by Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District is used for agriculture and the remainder for municipal uses. As cities grow, there’s more pressure on water-share owners to sell.

Finding a way to mitigate that pressure from urban users of water occupies a lot of time for ag professionals. Mark Sponsler, CEO of Colorado Corn Growers, said a stopgap solution to “slow the bleeding” might be to encourage cities and farmers to work together in a way that reduces the need of farmers to sell their water rights. In a dry year, for example, it might be more advantageous for farmers to lease their water rights to cities instead of fighting drought to produce a crop. The cash payment for water in that year might enable a farmer to make improvements that would make the farm more profitable in future years. City needs could be met in the dry year without permanently drying up neighboring farms.

Sponsler called the approach a “risk-management tool” for use in dry years. He said it isn’t the ultimate answer. “We absolutely need more water storage,” to store water that would otherwise flow out of the state.

Mary Kraft, principal of Kraft Family Farm in Fort Morgan, a large dairy operation, agreed on the need for storage. She noted that Colorado water law is extremely complicated and that conservation doesn’t always produce the result that some think. She said secondary water-right owners downstream depend upon water being used upstream so there are return flows into streams and aquifers. She also said that decisions to lease water to non-agricultural uses can result in a reduction in feed grains that dairies like hers need to produce milk.

Competition for water resources, among other considerations, has resulted in Sakata Farms deciding to forego production of sweet corn and cabbage. Sakata is looking to diversity in the use of its 3,000 acres, Robert Sakata said. “We can’t sell a 4-inch ear of (sweet) corn,” he said, which can happen if there isn’t enough water to produce traditional corn ears.

And water usage is at least partially causing increased interest in hemp crops, which require less water. Morris Beegle, CEO of Colorado Hemp Co., said that Colorado hemp farmers till 9,000 of the total 25,000 acres of hemp produced in the United States. He expects the Colorado hemp acreage to double in the short term because of favorable legislation in Colorado and because some traditional farmers are looking at alternative crops that require less water.

Finding ways to “maximize crop per drop” of water is on the minds of Colorado farmers, Sponsler said. Drip technologies are advancing, but they’re expensive. “It’s like buying the farm all over again,” he said.

Yet such strategies may be necessary for the future of agriculture. Jason Brancel, CEO of Agfinity, a farm co-op, said farmers and suppliers are getting more sophisticated in how they evaluate the costs of crop inputs. “If I have an input need for diesel fuel, when is the best time to make that investment in fuel,” Brancel asked. “Last summer, there was a run-up in the price of corn. How many (farmers) took advantage of that small window of increased price?” he asked.

Bob Yost, CFO of A1 Organics, said that re-use of waste materials as compost and soil enhancements has the potential of increasing yields, saving water and decreasing costs. A1 Organics takes organic waste from farms and food manufacturers and reconditions it for use in products such as MiracleGro.

Tom Haren, CEO of AGPROfessionals, said what he’s seeing in the development of ag operations in several states across the West is that next-generation family farmers are few and far between. “We’re seeing efficient and scaled (large) operations, or specialized operations like hemp farmers” having success, he said.

Farmers also said workforce is a big issue, especially in operations that require hand labor. Kraft said her dairy operates now with about five positions unfilled because it can’t find enough labor. That means that some jobs don’t get done or some staff members work double shifts. Kraft, who said uncertainty in federal immigration law is a factor, is considering technological changes that would reduce the workforce. Yet, while a robot can accurately place a milking machine on a cow, it can’t evaluate whether that cow needs medical attention, she said.

Costs of technology plus the cost of minimum wage increases — 2018 wage increases will cost Kraft about $250,000 — come out of profit with no easy way to make it up.

A comment about potential positive impact from the new federal tax structure drew a muffled laugh from the group. “Farming should benefit (from the new law), but you have to make a profit to benefit,” said Mike Grell of accounting firm EKS&H. He said the increase in the inheritance-tax threshold — from $11 million to $22 million — could positively benefit large farmers seeking to pass their operations to the next generation.

“The catch,” Kraft said, “is that you have to die before the next administration takes office. Whoever comes in could change everything.”

CCA’s Ag Water NetWORK hosts webinar on new ag water leasing tool

Photo by Havey Productions via TheDenverChannel.com

From the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association via The Fence Post:

Colorado Cattlemen’s Association’s Ag Water NetWORK has created an online tool that helps agricultural water right holders assess the potential of leasing their water rights for other uses. The supporting webinar describes the features of the lease screening tool, which generates a description of a water right’s lease potential based on user-inputted information about the water right, including location, seniority, acres irrigated and other criteria. Both the webinar and the lease Decision Support Tool are available at https://www.agwaternetwork.org/.

The state water plan, released in 2015, calls for more water storage, conservation and alternative transfer mechanisms (ie. ag water leasing) to help minimize ‘buying and drying’ of irrigated farm land in Colorado. Under a lease program, farmers are compensated for sharing a portion of their irrigation water with municipal, industrial or other water interests to help them meet their respective water needs. Ag water right holders retain full ownership of their water rights and land. Irrigated fields may be fallowed or deficit-irrigated to ‘free up’ consumptive use water for temporary leasing.

An ag water right holder can use the Decision Support Tool to find out the key considerations of an ag water lease and how suitable his or her water right(s) might be for leasing.The Ag Water NetWORK website includes a map which also shows locations around the Colorado where leases are occurring.

Colorado’s population of 5.4 million could nearly double to 10 million by 2050 according to the state water plan. The plan estimates that as much as one-fourth of Colorado’s irrigated agricultural land could be lost through the purchase and transfer of water rights from agriculture to urban areas. Such large-scale dry-up of irrigated agriculture would have permanent adverse economic, environmental and food security impacts.

#SCOTUS #TX v. #NM and #Colorado: “New Mexicans, though, lift their faces to the rain” — Laura Paskus

Map of the Rio Grande watershed, showing the Rio Chama joining the Rio Grande near Santa Fe. Graphic credit WikiMedia.

Here’s a report from Laura Paskus writing for The New Mexico Political Report. Click through and read the whole article. Here’s an excerpt:

In its U.S. Supreme Court case against New Mexico and Colorado, the State of Texas says that by letting farmers in southern New Mexico pump from wells near the Rio Grande, our state has failed to send its legal share of water downstream. The water fight has some New Mexicans gnawing their nails—and not just southern farmers whose water rights could be cut if Texas prevails.

Monday’s oral arguments before the court, over whether the feds can intervene under the Rio Grande Compact, drew a large crowd from the Land of Enchantment. Watching the proceedings from the audience were some of the state’s most prominent water attorneys, as well as Attorney General Hector Balderas, State Engineer Tom Blaine, an entire crew of employees from the Office of the State Engineer, officials from the City of Las Cruces and the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority, and U.S. Sen. Tom Udall.

Like everyone else, New Mexico’s senior senator, a Democrat, had to check his coat and belongings before entering the court, and after arguments, Udall said he wanted to be there because the case will affect the management and division of water use by farmers and communities for decades.

“Regardless of the ultimate decision, it’s critical that we understand that one of the root causes of the dispute is the increasing scarcity of water in the Southwest, and climate change is making that worse,” he said. “We must seek cooperative solutions or there will be more disputes over water—not fewer.”

There’s a lot at stake: The state has already spent $15 million on staff and legal fees. And if the Supreme Court decides in favor of Texas, New Mexico could owe a billion dollars or more in damages and be forced to curtail groundwater pumping around places like Hatch, Las Cruces and Mesilla.

Intervening interests

Now entering its sixth year, No. 141, Original: Texas v. New Mexico and Colorado stems from a deal two irrigation districts signed with the federal government during the drought of the 2000s.

After the relatively wet decades of the ’80s and ’90s ended, the Elephant Butte Irrigation District and El Paso County Water Improvement District No. 1 watched reservoir levels drop. In 2008, they decided to share water through dry times. The two signed a new agreement with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, operator of the Rio Grande Project, which is anchored by Elephant Butte Reservoir.

But the two states weren’t parties to that agreement—and then-New Mexico Attorney General Gary King sued the federal government, alleging too much water was being given to Texas.

In 2013, Texas fired back against New Mexico and Colorado, pointing out that by allowing farmers to pump groundwater connected to the Rio Grande, New Mexico had for decades taken more than its legal share of water under the Rio Grande Compact of 1938.

That’s the case moving through the US Supreme Court. But things are even more complicated than they seem.

That’s in part because under the compact, New Mexico doesn’t deliver Texas’ water at the state line. Rather, water goes to Elephant Butte Reservoir, about 100 miles north of Texas. From there, the Bureau of Reclamation delivers it to farmers in both southern New Mexico and Texas.

Now, the United States says that by allowing farmers to pump groundwater, New Mexico has harmed its ability to deliver water under the compact, as well as under the international treaty with Mexico.

And that brings us to Monday’s oral arguments before the Supreme Court…

During the fast-paced arguments, seven of the nine justices questioned each of the attorneys, parsing their way through Western water rights and the role Reclamation plays in both Texas and New Mexico. (Clarence Thomas stayed characteristically quiet and Samuel Alito asked no questions.) Many asked questions about the compact, the Reclamation Act of 1902 and treaty rights.

For Associate Justice Stephen Breyer, however, the case was clear.

In response to Colorado’s opposition of federal intervention, Breyer cited the U.S. Constitution, which allows the federal government to intervene in cases in its own interest.

“Obviously, the founders who wrote this wouldn’t want three or four or five or six states to enter into some compact that might wreck the Union,” Breyer said. “So doesn’t that suggest that they do have a right, the United States, to intervene, at least where there is a federal interest?”

It seems “quite simple,” he said: “The Constitution foresees that they can intervene where there’s an interest. They have several interests. End of case, unless there is something that I don’t see.”

Colorado and New Mexico don’t see it that way, of course.

New Mexico doesn’t object to the US joining the case; in fact, the state argues it is a necessary party to the suit. But New Mexico doesn’t want the federal government to raise a claim under the Rio Grande Compact.

After questions from multiple justices, including Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, New Mexico’s Rael tried to clarify that distinction, noting that the U.S. doesn’t own water rights itself under the compact or through the Rio Grande Project.

“Those water rights are owned by the landowners themselves who are represented by their individual states as parens patriae,” he said to Kagan. “And so the United States has an interest in the project, and they can certainly sue to enforce to make sure that we’re meeting our—that we’re not interfering with its project obligations, but it can’t sue us under the compact.”

[…]

She also worries that if the justices decide that the U.S. can assert a federal interest in a case between states, that could affect other interstate river compacts.

What [Samantha Barncastle] seems to want more than anything, though, is an end to fighting. It would be better for people to control their own destiny, she says, and work together instead of litigating.

“When you’re talking about a multi-billion dollar agricultural economy and municipalities and colonias, and all these different water users, you have got to look at other solutions beyond pure litigation,” she says. As interesting as it was for everyone to come to the Supreme Court this week, she says, how things might shake out is scary.

Leaving the court later that day, past the contemplative figure of Justice and her scales, the gray sky starts to spit freezing rain. Women flip open umbrellas, men hunker down into their scarves. New Mexicans, though, lift their faces to the rain.

Here’s the timeline for the case from The New Mexico Political Report:

Things are complicated. Here’s a timeline to help you keep track of the Supreme Court lawsuit New Mexico is facing on the Lower Rio Grande.

1902 – The United States Reclamation Service (now the US Bureau of Reclamation) is established to study and develop water resources in Western states.

1906 – The United States and Mexico sign a convention to ensure the Rio Grande’s waters are shared equitably between the two countries.

1906 – Construction begins on dams and canals on the Rio Grande. Leasburg Diversion Dam and Canal is completed in 1908, Elephant Butte Dam in 1916 and Caballo Dam in 1938. The Rio Grande Project, operated by the Bureau of Reclamation, provides irrigation water to farmers in southern New Mexico and Texas.

1938 – Colorado, New Mexico and Texas work out the Rio Grande Compact in a desire to “remove all causes of present and future controversy” among states and their citizens. The treaty was ratified by the three states and passed by Congress in 1939, and amended in 1948.

1950s – Drought strains water supplies along the Rio Grande. Farmers along the Rio Grande in Southern New Mexico and Texas drill about 1,000 new irrigation wells to supplement surface water supplies with groundwater.

2003 – After decades of relatively wet conditions, drought hits New Mexico, putting a strain on Rio Grande water supplies and reservoir levels.

2006-2007 – US Bureau of Reclamation creates a new operating procedure, which water users in southern New Mexico (Elephant Butte Irrigation District) and Texas (El Paso County Water Improvement District No. 1) sue over.

2008 – US Bureau of Reclamation, the Elephant Butte Irrigation District, and the El Paso County Water Improvement District No. 1 come to an agreement over water deliveries and sharing. The states of Texas and New Mexico are not a part of this new operating agreement for the Rio Grande Project.

2011 – Then-New Mexico Attorney General Gary King sues the US Bureau of Reclamation in New Mexico federal district court over the 2008 Operating Agreement, alleging that too much water was being given to Texas—water that should have stayed in New Mexico.

2013 – Texas sues New Mexico and Colorado in the US Supreme Court over violations of the compact. Texas alleges that by allowing farmers to pump groundwater connected to the Rio Grande, New Mexico has been taking more than its share of compact water. Texas wants the court to make New Mexico pay for the water it has been taking, over the course of many decades.

2014 – Special Master A Gregory Grimsal is appointed in the case and directed to submit reports to the court.

2014 – US Bureau of Reclamation intervenes in the case, alleging that by allowing farmers to draw water from the river and below ground, New Mexico is allowing people to use more water than they legally should. And it says New Mexico’s diversions interfere with water deliveries to Mexico.

2014 – New Mexico makes a motion to dismiss Texas’ complaint. (The court denies this in 2017.)

2015 – In a report to the New Mexico Legislature, scientists note that the Mesilla Valley aquifer “may no longer have the capacity to provide a reliable, supplemental supply during extended drought conditions and with the current levels of intensive use of groundwater.”

2016 – The special master releases his draft report, which indicates Texas has the upper hand in the lawsuit and recommends the high court reject New Mexico’s motion to dismiss.

September 2016 – US Bureau of Reclamation releases its final decision and environmental studies related to the 2008 Operating Agreement, which outlines operations through 2050.

January 2017 – New Mexico Office of the Attorney General, Office of the State Engineer and the Interstate Stream Commission announce they are working together on the case and also enter into joint defense agreements with New Mexico State University, PNM, the New Mexico Pecan Growers Association, Southern Rio Grande Diversified Crop Farmers Association, the City of Las Cruces and Camino Real Regional Utility Authority.

February 2017 – Special Master finalizes his first interim report. Parties have the chance to reply and/or file exceptions to his report.

January 2018 – Oral arguments occur in US Supreme Court. Justices hear from attorneys for Colorado, New Mexico, Texas and the federal government.

Elephant Butte Reservoir back in the day nearly full

The tiny power plant that shapes the Colorado River — merely by existing — @HighCountyNews

From The High Country News (Emily Benson):

Head east from Glenwood Springs in western Colorado today, and you’ll encounter an isolated stretch of I-70 hugging the curves of the Colorado River. But 110 years ago, you would’ve hit “a thriving little city” of hundreds of people living in tents, nestled there between the high walls of the river canyon so its residents could build a hydroelectric plant.

That facility, the Shoshone power plant, still adds energy to the grid, but its true importance lies elsewhere: Shoshone is a cornerstone of the elaborate complex of water rights, laws, agreements and relationships that shape the management of the upper Colorado River. Because of the water rights it holds — and because it returns the water it uses to the river channel — the diminutive plant dictates how the river is managed in Colorado. “It’s an interesting historic relic with huge implications for the ecological health of the river,” says Brent Uilenberg, a manager in the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s Upper Colorado Region, “and (for) providing a reliable water supply for East and West Slope human uses.”

Shoshone Hydroelectric Plant back in the days before I-70 via Aspen Journalism

The water system Shoshone has shaped irrigates crops, supports endangered fish and keeps a nearly $8 million rafting industry afloat. Merely by existing, the plant helps keep the demands of Denver and other thirsty cities in check.

In what has long been a source of conflict and compromise among Colorado’s water managers, most of the state’s precipitation falls west of the continental divide, on the Western Slope, separated from the majority of the population by the Rocky Mountains. Since the early 1900s, a series of tunnels and ditches have addressed that mismatch by ferrying water out of the Colorado River basin, supplying cities and irrigating fields east of the Rockies. “The Shoshone power plant has played a dominant role on the river since it first came online,” says John Currier, chief engineer at the Colorado River Water Conservation District.

But Shoshone, because it predates those diversions, keeps some water that might otherwise cross the backbone of the continent in western Colorado. In the world of Western water, older rights get first dibs: So Shoshone gets priority, even if that means managers must let water flow past their tunnel intakes. Less water for eastern Colorado means the river keeps rushing downstream toward Shoshone, and people and ecosystems that depend on it.

Downstream communities draw drinking water from the Colorado, and growers near Palisade and Grand Junction use it to irrigate peaches and other crops. Keeping water in the river has also been fundamental to a collaborative program to recover four species of endangered fish in the Colorado River. “It comes back to, fish need water,” says Tom Chart, the director of the Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program.

Downstream of Shoshone, just above where the Gunnison River empties into the Colorado, there’s a stretch of river where endangered Colorado pikeminnow lay their eggs after spring floods have cleared the cobbles of silt. But human demands on the river tax it so much that during drought, it can get close to drying up. To prevent that, water users and managers work within a tangled web of agreements and rules, looking for ways to keep the river wet. The flows that come down from Shoshone anchor that effort. “I always view Shoshone as our first line of protection,” Reclamation’s Uilenberg says.

But that protection hasn’t always been assured: If the power plant needs maintenance or shuts down, it wouldn’t be allowed to exercise its water rights, because water must be put to “beneficial use” under Western water law. To preserve Shoshone’s influence on the Colorado River — to protect the wildlife, farms and economies that depend on it — water districts from both sides of the continental divide formalized a plan in 2012. They agreed upon a protocol for releasing water from upstream reservoirs that would mimic the Shoshone flows should the power plant go offline, effectively preserving the plant’s influence for the long term. Short shutdowns at the aging facility aren’t uncommon, and “hav(ing) that protocol in place to bridge those gaps is key,” Chart says.

A separate deal, however, allows reductions in the Shoshone flows. Xcel Energy, the owner of the plant, has agreed to allow more water to go to Denver during dry periods by running just one turbine — cutting the plant’s water needs in half — when certain conditions are met. But crucially, that “relaxation” of Shoshone’s water rights is typically limited to the season when it would be least impactful to others: mid-March through mid-May, when the Colorado is beginning to run high with snowmelt but irrigation and rafting seasons have yet to begin.

For its part, Xcel says their interests lie simply in running the plant, not in negotiating battles over water, according to Richard Belt, a water resources senior analyst for Xcel based in Denver. “Shoshone has sort of been a neutral third party there, kind of minding its own business,” he says, a role it has played for decades, through deluges and droughts, major repairs and evolutions in water management — and one which the tiny, century-old plant will likely hold for years to come.

Gilcrest: High groundwater levels update

South Platte River Basin via the Colorado Geological Survey

From The Greeley Tribune (Tyler Silvy):

Underneath Gilcrest lies an aquifer, and the water in that aquifer should slowly make its way north, underground, to the South Platte River.

When it didn’t, at least not at the rate some say it should have, downstream surface water rights holders weren’t too happy and blamed the newer wells in this area as the culprit.

Irrigation wells were first put into Colorado’s prior appropriation system following legislation in 1969. Prior appropriation is a fancy way of saying water rights, and water rights are organized by the date a farmer or ditch owner or reservoir owner or well owner first used the water. People who first diverted water have senior water rights as early as the 1850s.

So, when farmers across Gilcrest began digging wells in the early 1900s, they were infringing upon longstanding senior surface water rights downstream, because that well pumping affected downstream flows in the river.

Numerous studies have shown the negative effects of well pumping, and how it depletes river flows even years later. But for farmers around Gilcrest, the court solutions and augmentation decrees are out of balance with well owners’ perceived wrongdoings and even with Mother Nature…

The impacts of less well pumping are many:

» Less well pumping means less water for crops during crucial times, such as when Strohauer had to deal with weeds in a potato crop because he couldn’t pump enough water to treat the fields with weed killer early in the season.

» High groundwater leaves mineral deposits, including salt, near the surface, rendering portions of fields useless and stunting crop growth…

Glenn Fritzler, owner of the famed Fritzler Corn Maze, used to plant one-third of his land in onions, another third in carrots and the final third in corn. Apparently, carrot and onion mazes haven’t yet taken off.

But there’s a problem. Carrots and onions need a lot of water – about as much as corn. They’re also quite sensitive to salty soils, something exacerbated by high groundwater, which deposits salts near the surface once they recede, and by less well pumping, because over-watering is one way of dealing with salty soils.

So Fritzler has changed crops. He’s now planting a quarter of his land in onions, a sixth in carrots and the rest in corn and winter wheat, which uses less water.

Winter wheat isn’t a money maker, certainly not when compared to produce, which, when healthy during a strong market is a farmer’s lottery, capable of paying off farm equipment and setting aside a nice chunk of dough.

“You’re probably breaking even at best; probably minimizing your losses,” Fritzler said of winter wheat. “It’s better than not growing anything.”

Jan. 1, 2006.

At least half of the wells along the South Platte River Basin were either reduced or shut down. Thousands of wells, built to get farmers through dry years, couldn’t be operated without an augmentation decree from water court.

Such a decree requires farmers to replace portions of what they pump.

Even farmers who obtained such decrees saw the face of farming change overnight thanks not only to requirements that well pumpers replace portions of what they pump, but that they replace what they had pumped since 1976.

It’s called augmentation, and there are a variety of ways to do it.

One such way is called artificial recharge, and typically it involves digging a shallow pond, filling the bottom with rock or sand to make it more porous, and then filling that pond with water as often as possible.

Artificial recharge, essentially putting water back into the underground aquifer well pumping has drained, pays dividends for farmers.

Almost every acre-foot of water poured into an artificial recharge pond can be claimed to allow well pumping in the future.

It’s why Randy Ray, executive director for Colorado Central Water Conservancy District, says farmers in the LaSalle-Gilcrest area are better off today than they were in 2006.

But it has come at a cost. Some farmers weren’t able to pump their wells for seven years, including the drought year of 2012, when farmers dried up hundreds of acres of corn.

Strohauer doesn’t like to look upon his eastern neighbors with envy. But he does notice things. He has his pilot’s license, and when he was taking potato samples to Imperial, Neb., to get tested for pests in 2012, he noticed something…

For farmers, the formulas used to determine how long recharge water takes to get to the river and how many days they’re able to pump are a headache-inducing mess.

In 2010, when Strohauer’s field was full of rotting potatoes, Stulp recommended Strohauer put in a de-watering well. Essentially, he wanted Strohauer to dig a well, pump water out of that, put it in a pipeline or ditch and send it back to the river.

Strohauer threw up his hands, pointing to his existing irrigation well on the property, the one the courts shut down…

“I looked at John, and I said, ‘John, right there’s your de-watering well. It’s right there. Let us pump the stupid well, and we’ll let the surface water go down the river, and it doesn’t cost the state a single dime. It will cost us some power, and somebody receives some extra water down the river. How hard is that?'”

It’s quite hard, actually, because things are never simple when it comes to water.

If a farmer here sends that water downstream, that will affect the flow of the river, and believe it or not, even the senior water rights holders may not want that extra water all the time. For instance, those rights holders out east may not want extra water coming downstream in March because they don’t have the reservoir capacity to store it.

The formula, called the Glover formula, was first used in the 1950s, and it tells everyone how much that well pumping will affect the river and when. Nearly 70 years later, we’re still using the formula, and Ray, Strohauer, Fritzler and countless others don’t know why.

Bob Longenbaugh, who once worked in the state engineer’s office, and has spent decades studying groundwater, is one of those others.

Longenbaugh said the Glover formula overestimates the impacts of pumping on the aquifer, meaning farmers around Gilcrest are forced to push more water downstream than Mother Nature says.

Further, the formula makes too many assumptions, Longenbaugh said. Among the assumptions are no precipitation, the idea none of the water used to irrigate crops soaks into the soil to recharge the aquifer and an assumption the geology underground between any farm and the river is completely uniform.

Moffat Collection System Project will impact forest surrounding existing Gross Reservoir

The dam that forms Gross Reservoir, located in the mountains west of Boulder. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

From The Boulder Daily Camera (Charlie Brennan):

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission is expected to rule early next year on what would be the biggest public works project in Boulder County history, exceeding the original construction of the Gross Reservoir Dam, which was completed in 1954.

The tree removal plan outlined in Denver Water’s FERC application states that all trees and their associated debris on about 430 acres along 12.5 miles of shoreline will have to be removed in the course of the expansion, which is envisioned as being completed by 2025.

Denver Water spokeswoman Stacy Chesney said the agency has estimated that “the density of the forest ranges from approximately 150 to 1,800 trees per acre. Based on these initial plans, we estimate up to 650,000 trees will need to be removed in the area surrounding Gross Reservoir.”

In a recent interview, Denver Water President Jim Lochhead vowed that every aspect of the project’s completion is being designed and executed with an eye toward mitigation of its impacts on the high country environment and those who depend on it for their recreation or call it home.

“We recognize that this is a major construction project and it has adverse impacts to the community,” said Lochhead, whose utility serves 1.4 million in Denver and many of its suburbs — but not Boulder County.

“We are trying to understand exactly what those impacts are, and see what the needs of the community are, and do everything we can to help address them.”

Referencing project manager Jeff Martin, Lochhead said, “Whether it’s traffic, hauling on the roads, whether it’s noise associated with the quarry, whether it’s the tree removal issues, it’s Jeff’s job to make sure it goes in a way that we’re doing the best that we can by the local community.”

Martin said: “We recognize the brutal aspects of the project. We don’t want to hide from those. That’s not our objective.”

Stressing that Denver Water intends to factor the concerns of reservoir neighbors into its planning of what’s officially known as the Moffat Collection System Project, Martin said, “We look forward to getting that feedback, seeing how we can make it into the most palatable project we can, and turn it into, maybe not reducing all the impacts, but for the greater good, reducing them as much as we can.”

[…]

A 48-page plan for the required tree removal prepared by Denver Water describes a mix of ponderosa pine, Douglas fir and Rocky Mountain juniper.

According to data the agency compiled in 2005, most of the trees at that time were 20 to 50 feet high, with a breast-high diameter ranging from 4 to 14 inches.

“Because of the topography, e.g., very steep slopes, rock outcrops, etc., several more complex tree removal (logging) systems will need to be used, and some temporary roads will need to be constructed to remove the trees,” the plan states.

It estimates that 50,000 tons of forest biomass are expected to be produced during the required clearing for the expansion of Gross Reservoir, which is to see its dam raised by 131 feet, expanding the reservoir’s capacity by 77,000 acre feet to a total storage capacity of 118,811 acre feet.

While noting that, “Traditionally, most of the slash would have been piled and burned in place,” the plan acknowledges that, “Today, burning large quantities of forest residue, in close proximity to residential areas, is problematic in the extreme.”

Allen Owen, Boulder District forester for the Colorado State Forest Service — a contracted forest resource management partner to Denver Water through the Forests to Faucets program — said he had been unaware of the number of trees Denver Water is planning to pull out of the Gross Reservoir area, or that it will involve the leveling of all growth on 430 acres of shoreline.

He doubts it would actually reach the 650,000 figure.

“That would mean 1,500 trees per acre over the entire 430-acre unit, and I know that’s not the case,” he said. “The stand densities vary all around the perimeter of the shoreline. There are areas that are nothing but solid rock, with no vegetation on it, to units that may have those number of trees. But there are not that many trees over the entire 430 acres. The number seems high.”

Owen expects state foresters will be involved in plotting how the trees’ removal proceeds.

“It’s something way beyond the ability of the Colorado State Forest Service,” he said. “I would consider that a big logging job, on very steep slopes, with very poor access. It is going to be very difficult, at best.”

Martin discussed three different potential scenarios, including removal by truck, burning and burial of felled lumber, or some combination of those strategies.

In cases where trees are located on small rock bluffs, Denver Water’s current removal plan notes, “the use of helicopter may be necessary.”

Denver Water believes new emerging technologies may pose options for removal that weren’t contemplated when its plan was authored.

“One of the things we’ve committed to is developing a process with public input … going out and getting some public input and some stakeholder input and that includes the U.S. Forest Service, the Colorado state forester and Boulder County, and developing some concepts … and then seeing what fits best for the community from there, and then moving forward with the plan,” Martin said…

Denver Water points to steps it is taking to mitigate the effects of construction wherever possible, and also emphasizes measures that it contends offers some in Boulder County a benefit. Lochhead and Martin touted the provision of a 5,000-square-foot environmental pool in the expanded reservoir, to be available for replenishing South Boulder Creek for the benefit of both Boulder and Lafayette at times when it is running dangerously low.

“That’s kind of a neat partnership there,” Lochhead said.

That does not mean that Boulder supports the Gross Reservoir expansion — but nor does it oppose it.

“Boulder has a neutral position on the overall expansion,” said Boulder’s source water administrator, Joanna Bloom.

“If the project somehow falls apart, then Boulder will continue to try to establish the streamflows on South Boulder Creek through other means,” Bloom said…

Boulder County’s stance on the expansion is more complicated.

The county filed extensive comments on both the draft and final environmental impact statements in the Army Corps of Engineers’ review process, and doesn’t agree that the EIS adequately addressed “the myriad of impacts” that would result for Boulder County and its citizens.

On March 23, the county filed an unopposed motion to intervene in the FERC approval process. One of the points the county addressed at length in that intervention relates to tree removal — and its arguments are based on the presumption of a far more modest, but still significant, removal of trees, at a total of 200,000.

“County roads (Flagstaff Road, Magnolia Road and others) are windy with low volume residential traffic and would be inappropriate for use by trucks hauling trees,” the county argued.

“In addition, it may not be possible to safely navigate SH 72 with trucks full of trees. These heavily laden trucks will cause damage to the roads and present safety concerns for road users.”

Moreover, the county contends Denver Water’s project must come through its land use review process, while the utility maintains that the county’s role is superseded by the FERC review process.

Until that conflict is resolved, the county is tempering its remarks, pro or con, on the Gross Reservoir project, so that it will not be seen as having prejudged any application Denver Water might make in the future through the county’s land review process.

Martin recalled that Denver Water worked extensively with Boulder County in 2012 exploring a potential intergovernmental agreement to facilitate the reservoir expansion.

While such a pact was ultimately rejected by Boulder County commissioners by a 3-0 vote, Martin said, “What we did receive was a lot of information from Boulder County and the public on how we need to shape the project in order to meet the needs of both the community and Boulder County.”

However, independent of the environmentalists’ planned federal lawsuit, there might be a need for another judge to sort out the critical question of whether Denver Water’s plans for tree removal and many other aspects of its reservoir expansion must pass through the county’s land use review process.

“I would say that it is likely that it will take litigation, because neither party is willing to give up its position,” said Conrad Lattes, assistant county attorney for Boulder County. “We need some neutral third party to decide this for us.”

However, on a warm and sunny day back before the chill of approaching winter descended on Colorado’s high country, Denver Water’s brass were flush with optimism.

Martin said that for Denver Water, it’s not just about getting the project done.

“We’re also looking at the social responsibility,” he said, “making sure that when it’s said and done, that we did it in the right way; that we could look back and say we did everything within reason and practicality to make this really the most environmentally, socially responsible project we can.”

Gross Dam enlargement concept graphic via Denver Water

#Texas v. #NewMexico and #Colorado lawsuit update

Elephant Butte Reservoir back in the day nearly full

From the Associated Press (Susan Montoya Bryan) via The Torrington Register-Citizen:

Farmers in southern New Mexico, water policy experts, lawyers and others are all working behind the scenes to craft possible solutions that could help to end a lengthy battle with Texas over management of the Rio Grande.

The case is pending before the U.S. Supreme Court and all sides say the stakes are high given uncertainty about the future sustainability of water supplies throughout the Rio Grande Valley.

The New Mexico Attorney General’s Office, Las Cruces city officials and agricultural interests provided state lawmakers with an update Tuesday.
Lawyers involved in the case say the court could schedule arguments early next year, but New Mexico is still open to settlement talks. Separately, the farmers, municipalities and commercial users that would be affected by a ruling have been meeting regularly to build a framework for a possible settlement.

Details of what that might look like are under wraps because of a court-issued confidentiality order.

Samantha Barncastle, an attorney representing the irrigation district that serves farmers from Elephant Butte south to the U.S.-Mexico border, said there’s no question groundwater will continue to be relied upon into the future to protect everyone’s access.

She said the parties are looking at managing the aquifer in ways New Mexico has never seen before. That could include more flexibility and policies aimed at avoiding the permanent fallowing of farmland…

Texas took its case to the Supreme Court in 2013, asking that New Mexico stop pumping groundwater along the border so that more of the river could flow south to farmers and residents in El Paso.

In dry years when there’s not enough water in the river, chile and onion farmers and pecan growers in southern New Mexico are forced to rely on wells to keep their crops and trees alive. Critics contend the well-pumping depletes the aquifer that would otherwise drain back into the river and flow to Texas.

New Mexico has argued in court documents that it’s meeting delivery obligations to Texas.

The Rio Grande is one of North America’s longest rivers, stretching from southern Colorado to Mexico and irrigating more than 3,100 square miles (8,000 square kilometers) of farmland along the way. Several major cities also rely on the river’s water supply.

Depending on the outcome of the case, New Mexico could be forced to pay millions of dollars in damages. The New Mexico attorney general’s office plans to ask the Legislature for $1.5 million to handle the Rio Grande litigation for the next year.

Tania Maestas with the attorney general’s office said the willingness of New Mexico water users to work together could lead to a “dream settlement.”